The opening game in the South Region of this year's NCAA Tournament on Friday between Oklahoma and Ole Miss features a pair of teams that got off to great starts this season but weren't able to sustain all of that momentum once they got into conference play.
Oklahoma (19-13) was impressive early, going 11-1 in non-conference games, including wins against fellow NCAA Tournament teams Wofford and Florida. But Lon Kruger's Sooners couldn't keep it going against Big 12 teams, going 7-11 and getting upset by West Virginia in the first round of their conference tournament.
Likewise, Ole Miss (20-12) got off to a quick start under first-year head coach Kermit Davis. The Rebels went 10-2 in non-conference play and won their first three SEC games, including victories over eventual conference tournament champion Auburn and archrival Mississippi State. But since then, Ole Miss has gone just 7-5, including a disappointing loss to Alabama in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
The winner of this game likely gets No. 1 seed Virginia in the second round on Sunday.
East Region: No. 9 Oklahoma Sooners (19-13) vs. No. 8 Ole Miss Rebels (20-12)
Time: 12:40 p.m. (Friday)
Where: Colonial Life Arena (Columbia, S.C.)
Keys for Oklahoma
The Sooners' game plan is simple: play the style of defense that got them in the NCAA Tournament in the first place. According to KenPom, Oklahoma ranks 23rd nationally in opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency, despite playing the seventh-toughest schedule in terms of opposing offenses faced.
Oklahoma also needs Kristian Doolittle to continue his recent stretch of strong play. In the last six games, Doolittle has averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds over that span, during which the Sooners are 4-2. Doolittle's recent emergence has lessened the blow of Jamuni McNeace, who has been bothered by an ankle injury most of the season. Oklahoma also will need sizeable contributions from leading scorers Christian James (14.4 ppg) and Brady Manek (12.0).
Keys for Ole Miss
The Rebels will need to rely on their talented backcourt. Ole Miss has a trio of guards that average double digits in points. They're led by Breein Tyree, Terrence Davis, and Devontae Shuler.
Tyree finished tied for second in the SEC in scoring (18.2 points per game). He along with Davis (15.1 ppg) give head coach Kermit Davis the conference's top scoring duo. Shuler chips in 10.2 points per game and hits on 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.
This is a matchup of teams that have different styles. Ole Miss wants to speed up the game and rely on its guard play. Oklahoma wants to grind it out and smother teams with its defense.
In a tournament setting, a matchup like this could go either way. But in the end, I think Rebels' guards prove to be the difference. And don't overlook Ole Miss forward Bruce Stevens, who at 6-foot-8 should be able to hold his own against the Sooners' big men and provide some support on offense (50.5 percent shooter) as well.
Prediction: Ole Miss 61, Oklahoma 58
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.